Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Low Water Mark

A good friend of mine is thinking about taking a European river cruise next summer. I’ve highly encouraged him to do so. Sharon and I found it was a great way to view the countryside from the comfort of our own river boat. It was a kaleidoscope of meandering past scenic pastoral scenes, vineyards that climb up the mountainside and tiny towns nestled among the bends and curves of the river.

Without raising too many alarm bells, this might be a good time to grab the chance at such a river cruise. The lingering effects of the pandemic can still be felt among many potential passengers. Prices continue to climb and worse yet, water levels on many of the Europe Rivers have reached a crisis level. River cruises as we’ve come to know them may be curtailed or sharply restricted in the future until these issues can be resolved one way or another.

It was only a couple of year ago that Sharon and I were on a river boat meandering south along the Saone River heading for Nice in the South of France. In a strange sort of way it was deja-vu for me all over again. I was finally completing a journey I had started and failed to complete back in the winter of 1967.

Paris has always been a seductive mistress. As the song title goes, ‘The Last Time I saw Paris,’ it was a much different time and I was in a much different place in my life. My first sojourn into the city of lights was supposed to be a simple pass-through as part of a full-blown retreat from the harsh winter in Denmark.

The experience of living in Denmark had been exhilarating at first. But gradually my daily work routine had grown stale with a lack of friends and no clear direction in my life. The South of France seemed a logical answer to a young kid who was ill-equipped and clothed to face that Nordic reality. Tall tales of warm sunshine, topless sun bathers and easy work was enough to lure me into a false sense of road security. I was assured that a quick thumb and ready smile would take me to those rocky shores in just a couple of days.

By the time I got to Paris, all bets were off. As I trudged through the city searching for enlightenment I only got hustled by Gypsies instead. After three days of aimless wandering I was ready to cash in my pocket money for a ticket home and three steady meals a day. I found a travel agency, got a one-way ticket home, and left on a silver bird the next day.

Paris has always been that stand-alone, a bit stand-offish kind of friend. At once it can be charming, brash, conceited, seductive, alluring and always surprising. Taken on its own terms, the city offers sunlight and sin on an equal basis. This fourth trip through Paris would mean three days in the city before we boarded ship for our cruise to Nice.

The city is different now than back in the 60’s. Ornate low-rise buildings have been toppled by towering glass hi-rise commercial enterprises. There are more tourist boats on the Seine than commercial traffic. Bike-sharing stations pepper the city with their light blue bikes while the new tour buses squeeze into narrow side-streets that even an old donkey cart had a hard time maneuvering. Signs of progress are everywhere but nowhere as dramatically as on the ring route and major arteries that are clogged with vehicles of every size, shape, and purpose from morning to night.

The city has evolved and changed yet feels much the same as it did back in the Fall of Sixty-Seven. The locals have long grown used to the artists, vagabonds, tourists and people of the streets who wander by their doorsteps in search of enlightenment. The smell of cooking, cleaning and daily living still permeates the side streets and dark alleys.

There’s a Parisian phrase that goes: ‘On the Left Bank, we think and on the Right Bank, we spend.’ I have little interest in the Right Bank where towering glass institutions of commerce and wealth line the Seine. My heart and my head are back on the Left Bank where Montmartre and the Latin Quarter still attract all kinds of creative spirits. The quaint cafes, dark narrow alleys and winding streets are still filled with the polished and unwashed alike. And while the new Bobos (bohemian bourgeois) fake their artistic lineage at gallery openings, true artists continue to live in squalor and strive to find meaning in life itself.

The trip south to Nice was uneventful, restful, and easy on the feet. It gave me plenty of time to ponder the times gone by and the journey I never completed back in ’67.

The first time I stumbled into Montmartre I ordered a coffee at some small corner café. It was a thick black muck that gripped my spoon and burned my throat. No wonder all the pretty young girls were sipping theirs so slowly and taking forever to finish their thimble-sized drink. The small cafes of Nice were no different. It brought back a plethora of memories.

This time around, I found a small café next to a flower shop. I ordered a beer and slowly began sipping it - French style. Crowds brushed past my chair and dropped cigarette butts at my feet. The rush of humanity flowed unabated in a steady stream past the café. I was invisible to all of them and liked it that way.

They were all looking around but not seeing a thing. Neither the flowers, the glorious sunshine nor the warmth of France. It was just another day on the coast for them. It was the end of the journey for me. Older, somewhat wiser, and a lot more miles under my belt; I was finally home.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Ancient History

Most folks think the history of Palm Springs began when one of its first settlers, Judge John McCallum, started a sanitarium for his children to recuperate from tuberculous. Then when silent film star Harold Lloyd made his home in the desert, Palm Springs was recognized as more than a lonely outpost in the desert.

Actually Palm Springs has a long and storied history that goes back hundreds of years. The ‘ancients’ as the local Indians call them, roamed these parts of centuries, hunting and living in the desert and surviving and thriving.

Indian petroglyphs are the earliest paintings we have on record here. A few have been found far back in the canyons that cut and slash through the foothills of our surrounding mountains. They have begun a long local tradition of capturing the mystery and beauty of the desert. Long after the last of the ‘ancients’ left their scratching on cave walls another kind of painter entered our vast desert studio.

By the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, the dry desert air proved to be a haven for tuberculosis patients to recuperate and recover from their illness. Tourists quickly followed along with artists and painters. Word had spread back east about the vast desert wilderness with its stunning mountain backdrops as a special place to visit.

But the real breakthrough came in the early 1900s with the growth of the plein air movement in painting. “plein air” derives its meaning from the late 19th century French term “en plein air” or translated “in the open air.” The phrase was used to describe the practices of the French Impressionist painters who sought to capture the effects of light and atmosphere by completing their work out-of-doors and by using loose, open brushwork and vibrant colors.

Many experts believe the plein air movement attained its most dramatic articulation in the desert of the southwest especially in the distinctive quality of light sought and expressed by the early California desert painters. Local artists such as Carl Eytel in the early 1900s and later John Hilton in the ‘40s helped spread the word of this desert wonderland as a magnificent natural palette.

Another one of the famous painters of that era was Stephen Willard who wasn’t a painter at all. Originally a photographer, Willard is best remembered for his iconic postcards from the Palm Springs area. After color painting some of his local photographs, Willard found a ready market for those paintings as postcards. Each postcard perfectly captures the true essence of the iconic Palm Springs lifestyle.

Gradually the movement lost its power and modern art came into vogue. Then in the 1970’s, California impressionism soared back into favor among collectors. Art itself like some strange virus continued to grow unabated in the valley. Now every community seems to have its own art walk, festival, show or art tours. Three distinct areas have slowly morphed into showcases for some of the most popular artists in the valley.

South of downtown Palm Springs has become an enclave of artists and painters. The Backstreet Art district is located in an old strip shopping mall. There are dozens of artist-owned galleries and working studios which feature paintings, sculpture, photography, jewelry, ceramics as well as performing arts.

A much larger area for artists is located north of downtown Palm Springs. Usually when an area is labeled with a catchy moniker, it’s just an attempt to categorize an image for a gullible public to glam on to. It’s often just a brand that some hack created back in the hinterlands for the benefit of some publicity-seeking city administrator. It’s like naming neighborhoods so the realtors can have something to label in a pretentious way and charge more for the housing there.

Back in the day, North Palm Canyon Drive was a slow growing area where local artists could find cheap rent outside of the main part of town. At one time it was a barren stretch of boarded up storefronts and half empty motels that offered none of the glamor and cache of old or new Palm Springs.

It was like Greenwich Village and Soho and Dumbo before the beats and hipsters and other so-called outcasts found a home there. And like those venerable neighborhoods, the Design District also found itself home to struggling as well as established artists looking an appreciative audience of like mind souls. All that has changed over the last ten years.

The area is now thriving with notable shops such as Trina Turk, thirteen-forty-five, Just Modern and a pop-up store called Raymond/Lawrence. That store describes itself as ‘a new indoor marketplace with handpicked pop-up shops by creative brands.” They make no secret of the fact that they are selling the Palm Springs lifestyle in home décor, furnishings, men’s and women’s fashions and fine art.

The Ultimate in artistic regeneration and commercial display is located down the Valley in Palm Desert. It’s a mile long commercial strip that is generations and millions of dollars from the mud huts of early painters deep in the desert. It is meant to embody the style and elegance of high society in the desert. This art-strung boulevard houses over 250 retailers, professional services, renowned restaurants and locally owned boutiques. It is the ultimate avenue for anything and everything you never knew you needed.

Desert art has come a long ways from those first ancient petroglyphs through ‘en plein air’ to the rich tapestry of creative talent that resides here now. There are a plethora of art shows, film festivals, world-class gallery and museum events, rotating exhibitions, national touring, and locally produced theater, classical to contemporary music concerts, couture fashion shows and architecture and design tours.

Yet as much as time changes the flavor of art, we still get to immerse ourselves in the daily show all around us. Each morning, sunlight still dances off of the mountain sides and the casts imaginative shadows over our lives.

It’s like a new show that takes place every day and we get to be in the audience and live it along with that celestial talent from above.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

California Dreamin

I felt from the onset, upon returning to Minnesota, that this season would be different. I wasn’t wrong. Waleed, Sweetpea and a host of other characters made it one memorable summer. The work flow continued unabated and kept growing.

Waleed, my loveable skinny hippo, kept growing with two additional languages added to the storyline. In addition to English in every book, there now will be a choice of a second language; Swahili, Spanish or Hmong.

My new kind of comic strip called ‘Sweetpea and the Gang’ continued to morph in many different directions. Rather quickly, Sweetpea gained newfound traction with four comic strips completed, a sampler going out for review to prospective readers, and a growing inventory of story ideas for the strip. There are still many miles to travel before a clearly focused marketing plan is finalized.

While I wasn’t able to produce a new play in Minnesota this summer, I struck gold in California. ‘Widow’s Waltz,’ a different kind of love story, was accepted by Script2Stage in Palm Springs, California. Chosen for one of eight performance slots out of more than eighty submissions (from as far away as Germany and Thailand) my new play will be performed in November.

There were a number of other projects in various stages of development or marketing efforts. Both the PTV and Tangled Roots are at the head of that writing bundle to be completed.

I started out this summer with high hopes for a continuation of my ‘Coffee and Chat’ sessions. Very quickly, reality crept into the picture and several past participants choose to go their own separate ways. My remaining cerebral partners shared a wonderful summer, meeting up at parks, beach fronts, patios, and coffee shops, to engage in a wide variety of verbal bantering, mental jousting, and comradery.

The number of my blog readers seemed to rise and fall according to the subject matter; always a mystery to me. I also lost several long-time faithful readers who gradually disappeared over time; who knows why?

All of which leaves me entering this fall with a growing portfolio of projects; all of them in various stages of development or marketing phases. My transition to the desert should be a smooth one given my second lifestyle inside my head. While it’s not the land of milk and honey as envisioned by the refuges from the dust bowl back in the thirties, there’s definitely something about California that is calling me.

I have had a long and fractured romance with California. Its part delusional, part opportunistic and part magical. Mostly it’s a comfortable relationship that seems to bring out the flip side of me that a lot of folks never see. It is at once my friend, advisor, irritator, and councilor. It forces me outside of my Midwestern comfort zone.

We’ve been going there for more than twenty years. It’s like some intermittent love affair within a diverse community of characters in an environment of fascinating amenities. As much as the state changes and evolves, and stumbles and leaps ahead of others, it remains a pathfinder to me in so many ways.

It’s the cradle from which my imagination gives birth to creative, frivolous, silly, and enlightened ideas, concepts, and storylines. It inspires me and mocks me at the same time. It’s the flip side of that routine called lifestyle. If ever there were a strange balance in my life it might be labeled the Minnesota-California connection.

There’s a quote I love that goes something like this: “At some point in the journey, you realize it’s time to head back home. It doesn’t matter where you are in the journey, the Gods begin calling and you must return home.” I think there is something about that mysterious force called ‘home’ that calls to all of us. It happens to me every fall and then again in the spring.

Every fall, my tenure in Minnesota is challenged by my West Coast other-half knocking on the door of residency. Now that I’m part-time Californian, my perspective about my home state has changed. I love California. It appeals to my restless youth, errant and wandering mind, free soul, sometime corrupt and tranquilizing imagination. Come springtime, I feel the same way about Minnesota.

I live in two different worlds and I’m comfortable in both. One is progressive, adventurous, and sometimes a bit outrageous but always leaning forward. For half a year I wear my Southern California flip-flops as comfortably as any other seeker. But I also live in the Midwest and I’m darn proud of that too.

Starting this fall, there will be a new play to produce, more work on ‘Sweetpea’ and ‘Waleed’ and more involvement in the theater scene here. There will also be new trails to explore and more distant attractions like Joshua Tree, Laguna Beach, and Idyllwild to add to that list.

It’s a different environment for me here among the bobcats, cougars, coyotes, and bear-state mentality but the workload continues on unabated. I have a plethora of writing projects that are screaming for my attention.

Yet I know for a fact that come next spring, the same magical force will once again draw my attention back to Minnesota. I’m born and bred Minnesotan with a strong streak of California to taint my mind. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Both states have become home in more ways than one. They’re like a cradle upon which my imagination gives birth to creative, frivolous, silly, and sometimes enlightened ideas, concepts, and storylines. It’s the flip side of that routine called your average lifestyle. If ever there were a balance in my life, it would be called the Minnesota-California connection.

What can I say; it works for me.